The declining influence of leadership positional power in a network society

The declining influence of leadership positional power in a network society
Almost all organization leaders today wield positional power: the power of a boss to make decisions that affect others. This is unlikely to change soon. But the growth of the network era, where leaders and workers need to connect outside the workplace in order to stay up to date professionally and to be open to new and innovative ideas, is creating a shift away from traditional hierarchical power models. Harold Jarche writes frequently about this:

“One major change as we enter the network era is that positional power (based on institutions and hierarchies) may no longer be required to have influence in a network society.”
Harold Jarchethe new networked norm

It’s increasingly possible to have influence these days without being anyone’s boss.

As a consultant in various fields for 36 years, this is a familiar world: one where I have influence with a client but less authority than a janitor. Clients are free to ignore my advice. Sometimes they do, but clearly I have useful influence that typically leads to significant change. (Otherwise I wouldn’t continue to be hired and — usually 😀 — appreciated.

Today, far more people work in the gig economy, which has grown in large part because the network era has made it much easier to find and hire specialized services on a just-in-time basis. This development has caused significant disruptions. Two examples: less long-term job security and the weakened ability for workers to advocate for their concerns en masse. However, there’s a positive side.

The network era is making possible a shift towards decentralized influence and power, and away from the dysfunctional features of hierarchical societal and organizational structures that have led to much suffering and misery throughout human history. Today there’s no reason to pick either positional or network era power; we can create systems that incorporate the best features of both.

Here’s Harold Jarche again:

“…it is up to all of us to keep working on new structures and systems. This is perhaps the only great work to be done for the next few decades. We have the science and technology to address most of the world’s problems. What we lack are structures that enable transparency and action on behalf of humankind, and not the vested interests of the rich and powerful.”
Harold Jarchechaos and order

This isn’t easy work. When consulting, one of my biggest meeting design challenges is to get boss buy-in. Typically middle management are enthusiastic and on board. But the most senior decision-maker will occasionally override everyone else in the organization. They make a poor design decision based on obsolete ideas about how people learn and lack of understanding of how good meeting design can transform communities.

The network era is here, and its effect on power relationships isn’t going away. To improve the relevance and effectiveness of social structures, organizations, and meetings, it’s crucial for leaders to understand and accept the potential and value of decentralized influence.

Image attribution: Flickr user thomwoo

Create Powerful Meetings Instead of Power-over Meetings

All meetings incorporate power relationships that fundamentally affect their dynamics and potential. Traditional conferences unconsciously promote and sustain power imbalances between the “speakers” at the front of the room and the audience. Such events invoke a version of power Tom Atlee calls Power-over: “the ability to control, influence, manage, dominate, destroy, or otherwise directly shape what happens to someone or something”.

People often tolerate this form of power on their lives (or seek to wield it) because they hold an underlying belief that when you lose control everything turns to chaos. Meeting stakeholders and planners typically subscribe to this viewpoint because they can’t conceive of (usually because they’ve never experienced) a form of meeting that successfully uses a different kind of power relationship: Power-with.

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The dark side of stories at events

Hans Bleiker tells a story about a group of scientists who spent several years carefully researching how to maintain the health of a deer herd, and determined that some minor changes in state hunting regulations would be very effective. At a public hearing, their entire case was undermined in 15 minutes by the testimony of a guy who loudly protested that his great-grandfather had helped his father shoot his first deer, his father had gone with him to shoot his first deer, and he’d be damned if some bunch of scientists were going to stop him help his son to shoot his first deer.

It’s been hard to miss the deluge of books and articles pointing out (correctly) that presenters who tell relevant, well-told stories have far more impact on listeners than those who recite a litany of facts. It’s not surprising that the most popular and highly paid professional speakers are those with a vivid story to tell — one that often follows some variant of the hero’s journey

Stories have great power to change our minds. They can do wonderful things: challenge our ingrained beliefs, make us aware of injustice, inspire us to be better human beings, and motivate us to act for the greater good.

Unfortunately, such power can also be used for evil. Stories can be used to inflict great damage.

Examples abound. Ronald Reagan’s mythical “welfare queen” has shaped U.S. welfare policy for 40 years. Chimamanda Adichie tells how childhood reading warps our view of the world. Stories of parents whose children developed the symptoms of autism soon after vaccination have led many people to not vaccinate their children, leading to the resurgence of preventable diseases even though scientific research has shown no connection between vaccination and autism.

Stories are dangerous, because, even with good intentions, stories can be wrong. And, more dangerously, they can be purposefully misleading. A child’s default belief is that stories they hear are true, and we tend to carry that belief into adulthood despite increasing experience that stories can be seriously biased and deceptive. The terrible way in which it has recently become routine for authority figures to publicly lie in order to achieve their own objectives is leading to a world where “alternative facts” are becoming the norm.

As event planners, we are often involved in selecting and supporting presenters who are given a platform to tell their stories to an audience, hopefully for good but possibly for nefarious reasons. While acknowledging the power of stories, let’s not forget that they can evoke dark passions in those who hear them. As people who make events happen, we bear a responsibility to decide whether we want to tacitly support those storytellers among us who use stories for immoral and unethical ends.

Photo attribution: Flickr user campascca

Facilitation, rapt attention, and love

facilitation_with_love52287653_a69cb73038_oWhy am I drawn to facilitation? I’ve often heard an uneasy inner voice that wonders if it’s about a desire or need for control and/or power. And yet I know through experience that when I am facilitating well, I have influence but no real control or power.

Then I read this:

“Freud said that psychoanalysis is a ‘cure through love,’ and I think that is essentially correct. The love is conveyed not so much in the content as in the form: the rapt attention of someone who cares enough to interrogate you. The love stows away in the conversation.”
—Psychotherapist and writer Gary Greenberg, interviewed in “Who Are You Calling Crazy?”, The Sun, July 2016

Facilitation is not psychotherapy (though sometimes it may have similar results.) But they both have something in common when performed with skill: the gift of listening closely. And that gift of rapt attention is given out of love—not of the content but through the form.

Though I sometimes want to be in (illusory) control, I am drawn to facilitation out of love.

Why are you drawn (if, indeed, you are) to facilitation?

Photo attribution: Flickr user alphachimpstudio

We can talk about it

We can't talk about it 4015519496_e9515f879b_b

We can’t talk about how we could do things better around here
We can’t talk about what isn’t working
We can’t talk about the countless opportunities we ignore
We can’t talk about what hurts
We can’t talk about dignity
We can’t talk about how to make magic happen
We can’t talk to our boss, our employees, our board, our investors
We can’t talk about the things we can’t talk about

That’s a shame.
—Seth Godin, We can’t talk about it

One of the reasons we feel we can’t talk about things is that we are scared about who might hear—people who have, or might have, power or influence of some kind over us, like our boss (“You’re fired!”) or colleagues (“He’s weird!”)

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